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Small Schools, Large Districts: Small-School Reform and New York City’s Students

by Patrice Iatarola, Amy Ellen Schwartz, Leanna Stiefel & Colin C. Chellman - 2008

Background/Context: High school reform is currently at the top of the education policy making agenda after years of stagnant achievement and persistent racial and income test score gaps. Although a number of reforms offer some promise of improving U.S. high schools, small schools have emerged as the favored reform model, especially in urban areas, garnering substantial financial investments from both the private and public sectors. In the decade following 1993, the number of high schools in New York City nearly doubled, as new “small” schools opened and large high schools were reorganized into smaller learning communities. The promise of small schools to improve academic engagement, school culture, and, ultimately, student performance has drawn many supporters. However, educators, policy makers, and researchers have raised concerns about the unintended consequences of these new small schools and the possibility that students “left behind” in large, established high schools are incurring negative impacts.

Research Design: Using 10 years (1993–2003) of data on New York City high schools, we examine the potential systemic effects of small schools that have been identified by critics and researchers. We describe whether small schools, as compared with larger schools, serve an easier-to-educate student body, receive more resources, use those resources differently, and have better outcomes. Further, we examine whether there have been changes in segregation and resource equity across the decade contemporaneous with small-school reform efforts.

Findings/Results: We find that, although small schools do have higher per-pupil expenditures, lower pupil-teacher ratios, and a smaller share of special education students than larger schools, their students are disproportionately limited English proficient and poor, and their incoming students have lower test scores. Thus, the evidence is mixed with respect to claims that small schools serve an easier-to-educate student body. Systemwide, we find that segregation is relatively stable, and although there have been some changes in the distribution of resources, they are relatively modest.

Conclusions/Recommendations: If small schools do eventually promote higher achievement (considering their student mix and other factors that differentiate them from larger schools), many more will be needed to house the 91.5% of the students still attending large schools. Otherwise, strategies that work for the vast majority of students who do not attend small schools will need to be identified and implemented.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 9, 2008, p. 1837-1878
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15169, Date Accessed: 8/3/2021 1:41:14 PM

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About the Author
  • Patrice Iatarola
    Florida State University
    PATRICE IATAROLA is an assistant professor of Education Policy and Evaluation at Florida State University. Her research is centered on issues related to urban school districts, schools, and students, particularly the impact of educational policies and reforms on resources and performance. Her research on the effects of accountability on resource use in New York City high schools has recently appeared in Education Finance and Policy.
  • Amy Ellen Schwartz
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    AMY ELLEN SCHWARTZ is director of the Institute for Education and Social Policy, and professor of public policy, education, and economics at the Steinhardt School of Education and Wagner School of Public Service at NYU. Her current research reflects her interest in urban education policy and disadvantaged students, resource equity, accountability systems, and the creation of small schools. Her work has been published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, American Economic Review, Journal of Human Resources, and Education Finance and Policy, among other academic journals. The author of several book chapters, she coedited the 2005 Yearbook of the American Education Finance Association Measuring School Performance and Efficiency. She currently serves as the president-elect of the American Education Finance Association and is a member of the editorial board of Education Finance and Policy.
  • Leanna Stiefel
    New York University
    LEANNA STIEFEL is professor of economics at the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University. Her current research includes measurement of school efficiency, achievement of immigrant students, the cost of small high schools, racial test score gaps within schools, and the effects of school organization on student achievement. Her publications include The Measurement of Equity in School Finance (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984, with Robert Berne), Measuring School Performance and Efficiency (joint edited, Eye on Education, 2005) and articles in peer-reviewed journals such as Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Journal of Human Resources, Economics of Education Review, Journal of Education Finance, National Tax Journal, and Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. She is past president of the American Education Finance Association and a past policy council member of the Association for Policy Analysis and Management.
  • Colin C. Chellman
    New York University
    COLIN C. CHELLMAN is a research scientist at the Institute for Education and Social Policy and a doctoral candidate at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, working on issues of education finance and equity, urban policy, and financial management. His dissertation addresses the effects of state education accountability systems on school racial segregation and resource distribution. His work has been published in Education WeekEducational Policy, Education and Urban Society, Ethical Business, and Journal for Nonprofit Management.
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